The Global Crisis: From big bucks to breadline

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The Independent Online
BEFORE THE financial crash came sweeping across Thailand, Sirivat Voravetvuthikun, 49, could be found behind a desk managing an impressive portfolio of investments and promoting a ritzy condominium project. Now he can be seen on the streets of the Thai capital, Bangkok, selling sandwiches.

Mr Sirivat is viewed by some as a symbol of the hubris that produced Thailand's bubble economy. Others see him as a model of Asian determination to fight back and overcome the bankruptcy rife in Asia, which has left him with personal debts in the millions.

He is familiar with a world in which adversity can be transformed into triumph. Mr Sirivat first shot to fame during the global stock market collapse after Black Monday in 1987. He was then the chief executive of Asia Securities Trading Plc, a prominent Bangkok stock broker. While others were fleeing the stock market he jumped in and bought shares. "I helped Asia Securities make about 200 million baht (then over pounds 3m) profit from its portfolio investment that year," he says.

After parting company with Asia Securities he decided to jump aboard the bandwagon which was taking the property market into the outer stratosphere. In 1994, in company with his brother, he launched a multi-million pound luxury condominium project at Khao Yai, north-east of Bangkok.

The two brothers borrowed heavily from the banks who were all too anxious to fund projects aimed at Thailand's new rich. However, the project never took off. After four years of hard selling, more than 70 per cent of the units are unsold.

By 1996 the fizz had gone out of the property market. Corporate debt was rising everywhere and in July 1997 the Thai government made the bold decision to devalue the local currency. It then went further and started tackling the debt problem. Mr Sirivat said: "I knew I was irrevocably broke the day the centralbank closed down 56 finance companies."

He was right. The banks quickly shut down his business and he was left with a mountain of debt. He does not think the sandwich business will take him back to where he was before the crisis erupted but hopes some of his creditors will roll over the sums he owes. This would provide a breathing space for him to get back into the market and earn again when the financial markets start to pick up.

Mr Sirivat is not alone in his enterprise. He brought along 20 of his former employees and got them to take pay cuts of about 40 per cent to work in the sandwich business.

He says the business is doing well and is looking to hire another 20 staff. He even talks of Sirivat Sandwiches becoming an international franchise. "My ambition," he said, "is to be known as Mr Sandwich, the same way you go to McDonald's for hamburgers and visit KFC when you have a craving for fried chicken. One day, when you think of sandwich, you would think of Sirivat."